Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Singing the blues at the playhouse

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

Last Friday night, while the masses headed over to Oak Bluffs to watch the fireworks, a small but enthusiastic crowd had the chance to enjoy an explosive show of another sort. “Low Down Dirty Blues,” the show currently in production at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, is not actually a play, but a showcase of some remarkable imported talent and a wonderful introduction to early blues music. And, on both counts, the show succeeds with energy to spare.

“Low Down Dirty Blues,” co-created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, and directed by Myler, features nearly two dozen vintage blues songs delivered by three extremely talented musical theater and concert veterans, backed up by a pianist and standup bass player.

Myler and Wheetman were also among the co-creators of another musical revue, “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” which played on Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1999. Mylar is responsible for a number of other music-based shows, including “Love, Janis” and “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Wheetman is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and playwright whose plays have been produced around the country.

The cast is equally accomplished. Felicia P. Fields plays Big Mama, the eponymous owner of the show’s fictional Chicago nightclub — Big Mama’s Place. Fields, a singer, actor, and director, received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in “The Color Purple” on Broadway. C.E. Smith, in the role of South Side, has performed on Broadway in “Leap of Faith,” and was among the cast of the Broadway revival national tour of “The Color Purple.” Smith has performed in numerous musicals regionally and in Europe, Japan, and Australia. Chic Street Man, who does double duty as the show’s musical director and in the role of Jelly, has been a featured performer at venues and festivals throughout the world. He has composed and performed in a number of shows in New York City and beyond.

Fields and Chic Street Man have performed in “Low Down Dirty Blues” at venues across the country.

When this trio hits the stage, each enjoying his or her own entrance and opening number, the sparks fly immediately. The first act justifies the “Dirty” part of the title, with some really fun numbers full of innuendo and bawdy double-entendres. Big Mama ups the ante with her flirtatious interaction with her male cohorts, and even a few audience members (avoid sitting in the front row if you don’t want some attention from the star, who’s got more than a little bit of Mae West’s raunchy side to her).

After a very uplifting first half, the second act lowers the tone to the deeper, more soulful level: songs like “Good Morning Heartache,” sung by Fields, and a chill-inducing rendition of the song “Death Letter Blues” from Smith. It makes for a nice juxtaposition of comedy and heartbreak that could be said to define the nature of the blues.

The songs run the gamut from the familiar — “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Shake Your Money Maker,” “Got My Mojo Workin’” — to obscure tunes that might even stump the most well-versed blues fans in the audience. Part of the fun of the show is in discovering lost gems like “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It” by Andy Hill and Alex Razaff, and “Don’t Jump My Pony” by Denise LaSalle. You may be surprised at how many metaphors the early bluesmen (and women) found to outwit the censors.

The show’s score includes songs by some of the most noted early blues musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Pearl Bailey, Sophie Tucker, and Ma Rainey. There’s even a song by the master of innuendo herself, Mae West. If you’re not a blues fan going in, you’re bound to leave with an appreciation of the most truly original American genre of music.

The set designed by Lisa Pegnato perfectly captures the look of a Chicago blues dive, with brick walls, decorated with a silhouette of musicians, beer kegs, distressed concert posters, and even an ashtray or two. Cynthia Bermudes creates some further atmosphere with the costuming that includes a show-stopping crimson dress that hugs Field’s ample curves enticingly. With matching red jewelry, the actress enters the room in true diva style, and delivers on that early promise. Lighting is crucial to this show, and Earnest W. Iannacone effectively brings the mood up and down with his masterful lighting.

Audience members should be aware that “Low Down Dirty Blues” is not a play, nor even a musical, but a musical revue. There is really no narrative to speak of, although the songs are interspersed with brief stories and bits of reflection on things like white performers co-opting black musicians’ songs and the lack of acceptance of Delta blues music in its heyday. Still, the show delivers on the entertainment factor as all three performers truly put their hearts and souls into the songs, and Fields adds some serious oomph with her character’s sly commentary, delivered with the skill and timing of a talented comedic actress.

Post-show last Friday, the audience was treated to an additional treat. As a smiling crowd emerged from the theater, some stopped in the middle of the street to catch the grand finale of the fireworks in Oak Bluffs, as seen from a wonderful vantage point down Church Street. A perfect ending to an electrifying evening.

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